THE news that Paul Gascoigne has had anti-alcohol, nausea-inducing, pellets sewn into his stomach should reassure nobody, least of all our hero, Gazza. The former England football star flew to Australia for the treatment. According to Gascoigne he can drink a glass or two of wine or beer but any more and he starts to feel sick.
Gazza’s difficulties reflect those of a wider culture where one in ten hospital patients is in trouble with drink. Alcohol abuse costs the NHS around £3.5billion a year. At least Mr Gascoigne funded his latest treatment himself. As Dry January reaches its conclusion, it is hard to imagine laying off the booze for a month having any real long-term effect.
Intrusive government can jack up the cost of alcohol, run public awareness campaigns and slick advertising all it likes. Forget it. Medics and motivational speakers can offer bizarre solutions. Don’t waste your money. No external initiative will affect the serious drinker. The solution lies in the power of the individual – among the oldest of conservative principles.
As a true-blue toper turned teetotaller I could have saved the Newcastle star a lot of money. A lifetime of supping beer and wine came crashing down upon my head – well, my foot – one January Saturday 14 years ago. Tramping across a moor with a couple of friends and a pack of foxhounds I started limping. My right foot felt as if it was sprained. ‘Here, have a belt of this,’ Ed the Red said, proffering a hip flask of port. The alcohol didn’t work. By the time I got home that evening I was convinced I had a stress fracture in the ball of my foot. A couple of pints in the Fox and Terrier next door didn’t help. That night waves of pain rushed over me every few seconds. It was excruciating. In the morning my wife drove me to hospital. Amidst the broken noses and glass-peppered scalps, I sat in casualty nursing my foot with a scowl.
‘I broke it when I was out running, I reckon,’ I told the duty physician. After an X-ray the doctor, a tall and imposing West African, pronounced the diagnosis. ‘It’s gout,’ he said. ‘You’re joking!’ I said. The doctor shook his head, a man not given to levity in A&E. ‘The blood test will confirm it.’
He gave me anti-inflammatories and warned me off the booze. ‘Drink lots of water and avoid rich foods – stilton cheese, lobster, that sort of thing.’ Porters in blue smocks grinned and insisted on trundling me out to the car in a wheelchair.
Gout is caused by the body’s failure to take out all the uric acid in your blood stream. It’s basically a kidney problem. Excess uric acid is dumped on a joint – usually the big toe ball – as crystals. When the body rejects this the pain starts. Flush out your kidneys is the rule for gout sufferers.
I read up on gout and I also read up on alcoholism. The blunt truth is it’s the first drink that does the damage, not the sixth or seventh. If you can’t control the inflow, switch it off altogether. I wondered how I’d cope with the lack of a social life. My entire life since I was a callow youth had revolved around bars and pubs. Like many middle-class Brits I had an instinctive admiration for garlic-belt culture – wine with a meal, a digestif perhaps. Two years in Germany added a deep veneration for good beer. Yet even back then, if I’d squared up to it, I was suspicious of alcohol. The superficial bonhomie of pubs, the tinsel smiles and easy laughter were all swept along on the wings of alcohol. We’re too easily pleased by insincere camaraderie. Happy hour stretches into mad midnight. Sadder still was the subculture of people groaning about politics, redundancy and divorce through a fog of hangover and discomfort. The friends you make in the bar are really no friends at all. Good for a social evening or two, maybe, but the pub is no basis for a coherent way of life.
I tried cutting down, failed and the gout came back. Off came the shoe and sock and there was the foot ballooning like a sun about to go nova. Panic-stricken, I emptied down buckets of water and anti-inflammatories. I was only 49 when this happened.
Six months after the onset of gout, I gave up alcohol altogether. There is plenty of help out there and plenty of people to talk to. Some make sobriety an obsession. Others live out their angst in support groups. I make no judgement. Whatever keeps you sober is worth trying and worth sticking with. However the decision is yours and yours alone. No doctor, spouse or counsellor will talk you into it. No short cut, hypnosis or drug aversion therapy will dissuade the true toper. We’re different, we’re stubborn and endlessly inventive. In this very failing lies our greatest strength. I took a decision. Not in a flash of realisation, not after careful study and forethought; no, I decided quietly and with no fanfare one sun-filled morning to leave it.
My Catholic faith and few good and genuine friends saw me through. One man in particular, Charlie Simeon, really helped, taking time to listen, explain and console. I hope Paul Gascoigne eventually discovers this power of decision. It’s an instinct, a reaction buried deep within us. I can’t explain it but it’s best summed up by that old two-word English phrase with three Fs in it. Charlie Simeon laughed at this when I told him. A few years later he died of cancer. Even now I think of him and the long conversations we had that summer, often in a cathedral courtyard in the city near where I live. In his smile and sympathy I came to understand the mercy of Christ. I honour his memory with my sobriety.